BORN: 1828, Skien, Norway
DIED: 1906, Oslo, Norway
GENRE: Drama, Poetry
Peer Gynt (1867)
A Doll's House (1879)
The Wild Duck (1884)
Hedda Gabler (1890)
In the English-speaking world today, Henrik Ibsen has become one of three playwrights widely recognized as preeminent. Alongside William Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov, he stands at the very center of the standard dramatic repertoire, and no actor can aspire to the highest rank unless he has played some of the leading roles in the works of these three giants. In this triad, Ibsen occupies a central position, marking the transition from a traditional to a modern theater. While Ibsen, like all great dramatists who came after him, owed an immense debt to Shakespeare, Chekhov (who regarded Ibsen as his “favorite writer”) was already writing under Ibsen's influence. Ibsen can thus be seen as one of the principal creators and wellsprings of the modern movement in drama, having contributed to the development of all its diverse manifestations: the ideological and political theater, as well as the introspective trends that focus on the representation of inner realities and dreams.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Poverty in Norway and the Beginnings of Poetry Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828, to wealthy parents in Skien, Norway, a lumber town south of Christiania (now Oslo). The family was reduced to poverty when Ibsen's father's business failed in 1834. After leaving school at the age of fifteen and working for six years as a pharmacist's assistant, Ibsen went to Christiania hoping to continue his studies at Christiania University. He failed the Greek and mathematics portions of the entrance examinations, however, and was not admitted. During this time, he read and wrote poetry, which he would later say came more easily to him than prose. He wrote his first drama, Catiline, in 1850 and although this work generated little interest and was not produced until several years later, it evidenced Ibsen's emerging concerns with the conflict between guilt and desire. While Catiline is a traditional romance written in verse, Ibsen's merging of two female prototypes—one conservative and domestic, the other adventurous and dangerous—foreshadowed the psychological intricacies of his later plays.
From an Original Drama per Year to Life on Scholarships Shortly after writing Catiline, Ibsen became assistant stage manager at the Norwegian Theater in Bergen. His duties included composing and producing an original drama each year. Ibsen was expected to write about Norway's glorious past, but because Norway had just recently acquired its independence from Denmark after five hundred years, medieval folklore and Viking sagas were his only sources of inspiration. Although these early plays were coldly received and are often considered insignificant, they further indicated the direction Ibsen's drama was to take, especially in their presentation of strong individuals who come in conflict with the oppressive social mores of nineteenth-century Norwegian society. In 1862, verging on a nervous breakdown from overwork, Ibsen began to petition the government for a grant to travel and write. He was given a stipend in 1864, and various scholarships and pensions subsequently followed. For the next twenty-seven years he lived in Italy and Germany, returning to Norway only twice. While critics often cite Ibsen's bitter memories of his father's financial failure and his own lack of success as a theater manager as the causes for his long absence, it is also noted that Ibsen believed that only by distancing himself from his homeland could he obtain the perspective necessary to write truly Norwegian drama. Ibsen explained: “I could never lead a consistent life [in Norway]. I was one man in my work and another outside— and for that reason my work failed in consistency too.”
Phase One: Verse and the Stage, a Transition from Poetry Critics generally divide Ibsen's work into three phases. The first consists of his early dramas written in verse and modeled after romantic historical tragedy and Norse sagas. These plays are noted primarily for their idiosyncratic Norwegian characters and for their emerging elements of satire and social criticism. In Love's Comedy, for example, Ibsen attacked conventional concepts of love and explored the conflict between the artist's mission and his responsibility to others. Brand (1866), an epic verse drama, was the first play Ibsen wrote after leaving Norway and was the first of his works to earn both popular and critical attention. The story of a clergyman who makes impossible demands on his congregation, his family, and himself, Brand reveals the fanaticism and inhumanity of uncompromising idealism. While commentators suggest that Brand is a harsh and emotionally inaccessible character, they also recognized that this play reflects Ibsen's doubts and personal anguish over his poverty and lack of success. More significant still was Ibsen's Peer Gynt, written while Ibsen was traveling in Italy and published in Denmark in 1867. Written in verse, Peer Gynt was not originally intended for stage performance, but has gone on to become a significant piece in Ibsen's oeuvre, in good part because of the score written for it by composer Edvard Grieg.
Phase Two: Social Realism and the Prose Drama Ibsen wrote prose dramas concerned with social realism during the second phase of his career. During his stay in Munich, when he was becoming increasingly attuned to social injustice, Ibsen wrote The Pillars of Society (1877). A harsh indictment of the moral corruption and crime resulting from the quest for money and power, this drama provided what Ibsen called a “contrast between ability and desire, between will and possibility.” Writing as the Industrial Revolution was making new labor relations possible throughout much of Western Europe, and writing from a Germany newly united as one nation (in 1871)—under the firm, if less than universally beloved hand of Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia—Ibsen was in an excellent position to bear witness to both the power
and the limitations of the human will. His protagonist here, Consul Bernick, while first urging his son to abide by conventional morality and become a “pillar of society,” eventually experiences an inner transformation and asserts instead: “You shall be yourself, Olaf, and then the rest will have to take care of itself.”
Ibsen's next drama, A Doll's House (1879), is often considered a masterpiece of realist theater. The account of the collapse of a middle-class marriage, this work, in addition to sparking debate about women's rights and divorce, is also regarded as innovative and daring because of its emphasis on psychological tension rather than external action. This technique required that emotion be conveyed through small, controlled gestures, shifts in inflection, and pauses, and therefore instituted a new style of acting.
Ghosts (1881) and An Enemy of Society (1882) are the last plays included in Ibsen's realist period. In Ghosts Ibsen uses a character infected with syphilis to symbolize how stale habits and prejudices can be passed down from generation to generation. Written as much of Europe— though not Norway—was engaged in what has come to be called the European “scramble for Africa,” the effort to control colonies in areas newly desirable as sources of raw material and markets for consumer goods, An Enemy of Society demonstrates Ibsen's contempt for what he considered stagnant political rhetoric. Audiences accustomed to the Romantic sentimentality of the “well-made play” were initially taken aback by such controversial subjects. However, when dramatists George Bernard Shaw and George Brandes, among others, defended Ibsen's works, the theater-going public began to accept drama as social commentary and not merely as entertainment.
Phase Three: Negotiating the Symbolic With The Wild Duck (1884) and Hedda Gabler (1890), Ibsen entered a period of transition during which he continued to deal with modern, realistic themes, but made increasing use of symbolism and metaphor. The Wild Duck, regarded as one of Ibsen's greatest tragicomic works, explores the role of illusion and self-deception in everyday life. In this play, Gregers Werle, vehemently believing that everyone must be painstakingly honest, inadvertently causes great harm by meddling in other people's affairs. At the end of The Wild Duck, Ibsen's implication that humankind is unable to bear absolute truth is reflected in the words of the character named Relling: “If you rob the average man of his illusion, you are almost certain to rob him of his happiness.” Hedda Gabler concerns a frustrated aristocratic woman and the vengeance she inflicts on herself and those around her. Taking place entirely in Hedda's sitting room shortly after her marriage, this play has been praised for its subtle investigation into the psyche of a woman who is unable to love others or confront her sexuality.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Ibsen's famous contemporaries include:
Anton Chekhov (1860–1904): Along with Ibsen and August Strindberg, Chekhov is considered one of the three most important early-modern playwrights; his works deliberately challenged traditional dramatic structure.
Elizabeth Cary Agassiz (1822–1907): An American educator, Agassiz cofounded Radcliffe College and served as its first president. The college was founded in order to give women access to the high educational standards offered by neighboring Harvard, which at the time was open only to men.
Thomas Edison (1847–1931): Perhaps the best-known inventor of all time, Edison pioneered several devices that are today considered indispensable to modern life as well as a new, industrial approach to scientific research.
Leopold II (1835–1909): King of the Belgians, Leopold became infamous in his own time for his ruthless exploitation of the Congo region of Africa, which he claimed as his own personal domain. His colonialism was too much to stomach for many of his fellow Europeans, and a campaign eventually forced him to relinquish his personal control of the region.
Charles Darwin (1809–1882): The English naturalist famous for his theory of evolution and natural selection. His Origin of Species caused a sensation upon its publication and stirred a fierce public debate that reverberates to this day.
Ibsen himself returned to Norway in 1891 and there entered his third and final period with the dramas The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and When We Dead Awaken (1899). In these final works, Ibsen dealt with the conflict between art and life and shifted his focus from the individual in society to the individual alone and isolated. It is speculated that The Master Builder was written in response to Norwegian writer Knut Hamson's proclamation that Ibsen should relinquish his influence in the Norwegian theater to the younger generation. Described as a “poetic confession,” The Master Builder centers around an elderly writer, Solness, who believes he has misused and compromised his art. Little Eyolf, the account of a crippled boy who compensates for his handicap through a variety of other accomplishments, explores how self-deception can lead to an empty, meaningless life. The search for personal contentment and self-knowledge is also a primary theme in John Gabriel Borkman, a play about a banker whose quest for greatness isolates him from those who love him. And in his final play, When We Dead Awaken, subtitled “A Dramatic Monologue,” Ibsen appears once more to pass judgment on himself as an artist. Deliberating over such questions as whether his writing would have been more truthful if he had lived a more active life, When We Dead Awaken is considered one of Ibsen's most personal and autobiographical works.
After completing When We Dead Awaken, Ibsen suffered a series of strokes that left him an invalid for five years until his death in 1906.
Works in Literary Context
Ibsen's first and most obvious impact was social and political. His efforts to make drama and the theater a means to bring into the open the main social and political issues of the age shocked and scandalized a society that regarded the theater as a place of shallow amusement. And Ibsen, too, seems to have been the only playwright to, in his lifetime, become the center of what almost amounted to a political party—the Ibsenites, who in Germany, England, and elsewhere appear in the contemporary literature as a faction of weirdly dressed social and political reformers, advocates of socialism, women's rights, and a new sexual morality (as in the Ibsen Club, in Shaw's The Philanderer). The fact that Ibsen was equated with what amounted to a counterculture has had a considerable influence on the subsequent fluctuations of his fame and the appreciation of his plays by both the critics and the public.
The Birth of Modern Theater It is usually assumed that the shock caused by Ibsen, and the furiously hostile reaction his early plays provoked, were due to this political and social subversiveness. But that is only part of the truth. Another important cause of the violent reaction by audiences and critics alike lay in the revolutionary nature of Ibsen's dramatic method and technique. This is an aspect which is far more difficult for us to comprehend today as we have become completely conditioned to what were then “revolutionary” conventions. Much of the fury directed at the time against Ibsen had nothing to do with his supposed obscenity, blasphemous views, or social destructiveness. What was criticized above all was his obscurity and incomprehensibility. Ibsen, it was said again and again, was a troublemaker who was obscure on purpose in order to mask the shallowness of his thinking, and whose dark hints and mysterious allusions were never cleared up in his plays.
Against Repression: A Precursor to Freud Sexuality, and especially female sensuality, which did not officially exist at all for the Victorians, was seen by Ibsen as one of the “dangerous instincts” in the sense that when it is suppressed by societal demands it forces the individual to live an inauthentic life, creating feelings of inadequacy and conflict. Mrs. Alving's failure to break out of her marriage in Ghosts foreshadows Hedda Gabler's inability to give herself to Lovborg, and is shown by Ibsen to bring about similarly tragic results. In Little Eyolf the conflict is between motherhood and uninhibited female sensuality. Rita Allmers is the most openly sexually voracious character in Ibsen's plays: here the rejection of motherhood derives from an obsession with the sensual aspect of sex. Rita's exaggerated sexual drive may well spring from her husband's equally disproportionate commitment to his work as a philosopher, which has led him to neglect both her sexual needs and their child's emotional and educational demands. In his attention to these issues, Ibsen presaged the work of famous Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who developed a human science around the idea and the treatment of repressed sexuality.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Ibsen's plays derive much of their intensity from the relationships between the male and female characters, and the conflict of love versus honor that those relationships embody. Here are some other plays that have explored similar themes:
Hamlet (c. 1601), a tragedy by William Shakespeare. Arguably Shakespeare's greatest play, this tragedy– based on a twelfth-century account of Danish history, the Gesta Danorum (“Deeds of the Danes”)–revolves around a son honor-bound to avenge his father's death at the hands of his uncle, and the doubt and soul-searching this obligation inspires.
Trifles (1916), a play by Susan Glaspell. Written forty years after A Doll's House, this play examines similar themes of male-female relationships, but played out against a background of grinding poverty. The social and emotional differences between the sexes form the crux of the action, painting both men and women in rather broad strokes.
Miss Julie (1888), a play by August Stringberg. A Swedish contemporary of Ibsen and often compared with him, Strindberg in this play touches on class issues in addition to the contrast between love and lust and conflicts between men and women.
The Seagull (1895), a play by Anton Chekhov. Deeply influenced by Ibsen, this celebrated Russian playwright in this his first play adds a diverse cast to the standard Ibsenesque themes of love versus honor, strongly evoking Hamlet in the process.
Works in Critical Context
Although audiences considered Ibsen's dramas highly controversial during his lifetime because of his frank treatment of social problems, today's scholars focus on the philosophical and psychological elements of his plays and the ideological debates they have generated. Ibsen's occasional use of theatrical conventions and outmoded subject matter has caused some critics to dismiss his work as obsolete and irrelevant to contemporary society, but others recognize his profound influence on the development of modern drama. Haskell M. Block has asserted: “In its seemingly limitless capacity to respond to the changing need and desires of successive generations of
audiences, [Ibsen's] work is truly classic, universal in implication and yet capable of endless transformation.”
Peer Gynt The protagonist of Ibsen's drama Peer Gynt (1867), while witty, imaginative, and vigorous, is incapable of self-analysis. Although this play takes on universal significance due to Ibsen's use of fantasy, parable, and symbolism, it is often described as a sociological analysis of the Norwegian people. Harold Beyer explains: “[Peer Gynt] is a central work in Norwegian literature, comprising elements from the nationalistic and romantic atmosphere of the preceding period and yet satirizing these elements in a spirit of realism akin to the period that was coming. It has been said that if a Norwegian were to leave his country and could take only one book to express his national culture, [Peer Gynt] is the one he would choose.”
A Doll's House For those who have seen performances of A Doll's House by Claire Bloom or Jane Fonda on stage, screen, or television in the last decade, there is little difficulty in understanding Ibsen's reputation as a writer of social-problem plays. Most people still see the play as one about a heroic young woman's victorious struggle for freedom from repressive social conventions. Some, however, like critic Hermann Weigand (writing as early as the 1920s), see Nora as a deceptive, selfish, intriguing young woman bent only on having her own way. These critics believe Ibsen is satirizing and debunking her rather than, as others believe, holding her up as virtue incarnate.
Most of the characters in the play are conceived of as playing roles drawn from the kinds of Danish and French romantic melodramas from which Ibsen learned his craft. As famed Marxist literary critic Raymond Williams points out, there is “the innocent child-like woman, involved in a desperate deception, the heavy insensitive husband; the faithful friend.” “Similarly,” Williams continues, “the main situations of the play are typical of the intrigue drama: the guilty secret, sealed lips, the complication of situations around Krogstad's letter… Krogstad at the children's party… the villain against a background of tranquility….” For Williams all of this is an indication of the play's weaknesses: “None of this is at all new,” he says, “and it is the major part of the play.”
Responses to Literature
- The concept of integrity was a recurring theme in Ibsen's plays. Select two of his plays in which integrity plays a central role and analyze them. Are characters with integrity rewarded or punished? What vision does Ibsen present of the value, or lack thereof, of integrity in a modern world?
- In Ibsen's works, how does the dialogue between closely related characters differ from the dialogue between strangers? What purpose does this difference serve?
- Ibsen was forced to write a second ending to A Doll's House, in which Nora decides to remain in her marriage for the sake of her children. Research which ending best reflects the cultural reality of the nineteenth-century Europe in which the play was written? Explain your choice.
- Discuss the use of Christian allegory in Ibsen's Peer Gynt.
- Ibsen was just one of millions of Norwegians who emigrated during the nineteenth century. Research the motivations behind this mass exodus. How do Ibsen's reasons for leaving match up with the average Norwegian's?
Byran, George B., An Ibsen Companion: A Dictionary-Guide to the Life, Works, and Critical Reception of Henrik Ibsen. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1984.
Chesterton, G. K., A Handful of Authors: Essays on Books & Writers. Ed. Dorothy Collins. Lanham, Md.: Sheed and Ward, 1953.
Corrigan, Robert W., The Theatre in Search of a Fix. New York: Delacorte, 1973.
Fjelde, Rolf, ed. Ibsen: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1965.
Shaw, George Bernard, The Quintessence of Ibsenism. New York: Hill & Wang, 1957.
Weigand, Hermann, The Modern Ibsen. New York: Dutton, 1960.
Williams, Raymond, Drama: From Ibsen to Brecht. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.
IBSEN, HENRIKearly-nineteenth-century theater
IBSEN, HENRIK (1828–1906), Norwegian playwright.
Henrik Ibsen's ascendancy to the front rank of European writers in the second half of the nineteenth century was achieved against stupendous odds. He was born in 1828, in Skien, a small town in southern Norway. William Archer (1856–1924), his first major English translator, wrote: "his Dano-Norwegian language is spoken by some four and a half million people in all, and the number of foreigners who learn it is infinitesimal. The sheer force of his genius has broken this barrier of language" (Postlewait, p. 55). At the age of fifteen Ibsen left home for the coastal town of Grimstad as an apprentice to an apothecary and in 1850 left Grimstad for Christiania (now Oslo), having written verses in support of the European revolutionary events of 1848. In this year (1850) he published his first play, the tragedy Catiline.
Christiania (a raw, newly emerging "city" of about thirty thousand) was the capital of a country with no dramatic tradition. Its theater presented plays performed by Danish companies and imported from the current European repertoire that included no examples of major drama. Ibsen's early dramatic criticism in Christiania deplored the dismal state of the theater and of public taste. His first play to be staged, successfully by the Christiania theater in 1850, was the one-act The Warrior's Barrow, dramatizing a highly Romantic dialectic of pagan versus Christian, north versus south, and male versus female—polarities that continued, with much greater artistry, throughout his subsequent writing.
He abandoned a second career as a painter; but his plays display a heightened sense of the visual aspects of drama: the stage space a canvas for a thoroughly "composed" and powerful iconography. This became apparent after he abandoned the verse medium of Peer Gynt (1867). In his later realist cycle, the twelve plays from Pillars of Society (1877) to When We Dead Awaken (1899), the meticulously detailed stage set serves simultaneously as a vehicle of symbolic meaning and a determining element of the action, extending the overall metaphor of the play. The dynamic interplay between the stage space and the characters who occupy it generates much of the dramatic tension of Ibsen's realist dramaturgy.
In 1851 Ole Borneman Bull (1810–1880), a noted Norwegian violinist and theatrical manager, engaged Ibsen as "playwright in residence" for the newly created Norwegian Theatre in Bergen. Much of his responsibility consisted of staging what he termed "Scribe and Co.'s sugar-candy dramas"—well-made plays by the popular French dramatist Augustin-Eugène Scribe (1791–1861) and his followers. This involvement early in his career in the actual staging of plays, gave Ibsen a firm grounding in the technical aspects of the theater.
The standing of the theater in Europe and the United States in the 1850s was at its lowest. In Britain, the last new play of any significance to
appear before the arrival of A Doll's House in London in 1889 had been Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal (1777). During a century that saw the full flowering of the Romantic movement in poetry and the arts and the rise of the realistic novel as a major literary genre, with the exception of the German dramatists from Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781) to Friedrich Hebbel (1813–1863), no drama of major significance appeared. No other period has been at once so fertile in literature and so barren in dramatic art.
The European stage, for most of the nineteenth century, was dominated by morally stereo-typical melodramas whose audiences were dazzled by spectacular stage effects and the violent exercise of conventional emotions; or, for more refined tastes, technically adroit "well-made-plays" after the Scribean model, whose main themes were adultery and murder in the fashionable classes; or, a variant of these, "thesis plays," taking up some problem of topical social morality for a mildly controversial airing. Ibsen's plays, however, reflect stronger influences from such German dramatists as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805), Heinrich von Kleist (1777–1811), Friedrich Hebbel (1813–1863), and their Danish followers.
This was the cultural situation in the theater that Ibsen was so momentously to engage. Nineteenth-century society concealed a host of skeletons in the closets of its private and public life and maintained highly developed antennae for detecting any hint either of political subversion or, especially in Britain and the United States, "impropriety" in social mores. Ibsen's volatile confrontation with the theater of his time is one of the ironies of cultural history. His identity as a dramatist seemed programmed to repudiate, at every point, the medium he was intellectually to dominate. Although continually rejected and assailed by the public, reduced to poverty, in exile, he doggedly worked on the debased condition of the theater until he forged a modern drama for his own revolutionary artistic purpose. After his first major success, Brand (1866), at the age of thirty-eight he kept up his contentious stance toward the public, remaining a center of controversy until long after his death in 1906.
Like the composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883), Ibsen was determined that the medium he chose should be remade to conform to his artistic demands, setting the integrity of his art above all temptation to exploit a potentially very lucrative medium. Michael Meyer, in his biography of Ibsen, estimates that even at the height of his fame, in the more than a decade following A Doll's House, in which he created Ghosts (1881), An Enemy of the People (1882), The Wild Duck (1884), Rosmersholm (1886), The Lady from the Sea (1888), and Hedda Gabler (1890), Ibsen earned less from this total output than a fashionable playwright would make in a single year.
It is not surprising that his plays were initially greeted with intense hostility by practitioners and defenders of the traditional drama. More surprising was the intensity, scale, and duration of that hostility across Europe and the United States. However, a minority public was evolving, hungry for a theater into which one could take one's intellect. This, in part, accounts for the success of Ibsen with the "thinking world" when, in the late 1880s, his plays began to appear on the European stage. Ibsen offered a drama that was in tune with the leading ideas and artistic achievements of the time. This minority was a highly critical, often rebellious intelligentsia variously at odds with the aesthetic, moral, political, and religious premises of conventional society. Ibsen's dramas addressed all levels of cultural alienation. Henry James, Thomas Hardy, George Augustus Moore, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and James Joyce were among the many who, with the progressive men and women of Europe, and later the United States, took up the cause of Ibsen and the new independent theater movement. This minority theater, the cradle of serious modern drama, came into being in Berlin (the Freie Bühne, 1889) and London (the Independent Theatre 1891) specifically to perform Ibsen's Ghosts. In Paris, André Antoine's recently created Théâtre Libre performed Ghosts in 1890. George Moore, sitting in the audience, was so moved by the play he became a founding member of a new Irish Literary Theatre—later to become Ireland's Abbey Theatre.
Drama now followed the other arts by splitting into mutually incompatible—and often hostile—mainstream and minority camps. Performing an Ibsen play was considered virtually an insurrectionary act (Ghosts was banned from public performance in England for twenty-three years), and Ibsen became the most vilified, championed, talked and written about individual in Europe. "It may be questioned," wrote James Joyce in his review of When We Dead Awaken, "whether any man has held so firm an empire over the thinking world in modern times." Within an astonishingly short time the theater, through Ibsen, had shaken off its insignificance and disrepute to became a major, and highly controversial, force in modern culture. His influence on modern drama is so great as to be almost incalculable.
George Bernard Shaw's The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891, 1913) helped inaugurate an idea of Ibsen that stubbornly survives into the present as a writer of "problem plays" concerned with eradicating the social and ethical crises of middle-class culture. As early as 1907, Jennette Lee protested against this didactic interpretation. "The conception of a problem play as one in which some problem of modern life is discussed by the characters and worked out in the plot is foreign to Ibsen, as to all great artists" (Lee, p. 9).
An alternative tradition claims him as a consummate artist whose cycle of twelve plays in particular is one of the supreme achievements of modern literature. Ibsen interpretation and criticism continues to be as diverse and voluminous as that of any major writer.
Durbach, Errol. "A Century of Ibsen Criticism." In The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, edited by James McFarlane. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.
Johnston, Brian. The Ibsen Cycle. Rev. ed. University Park, Pa., 1992.
Joyce, James. "Ibsen's New Drama." Fortnightly Review 73. April 1900.
Meyer, Michael. Ibsen: A Biography. New York, 1971.
Postlewait, Thomas, ed. William Archer on Ibsen. Westport, Conn., 1984.
The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) developed realistic techniques that changed the entire course of Western drama. There is very little in modern drama that does not owe a debt to him.
Henrik Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828, in the town of Skien. His father, a businessman, went bankrupt when Ibsen was 8, a shattering blow to the family. Ibsen left home at 15, spending the next six, difficult years as a pharmacist's assistant in Grimstad, where he wrote his first play. In 1850 he moved to Christiania (Oslo) to study. In 1851 he became resident dramatist, later director, of a new theater in Bergen. Although he never became a good director and his plays were mostly unsuccessful, the years in Bergen gave him invaluable experience in practical stagecraft.
Ibsen returned to Christiania in 1857, where he spent the worst period of his life. His plays were either rejected or failures, he went into debt, and his talent was publicly questioned. He left Norway in 1864, spending the next 27 years in Italy and Germany. While bitter and humiliating personal memories explain, in part, his long exile, it seems also that only by distancing himself from everything he held dear could he devote himself completely to his art. When he left Norway, he looked like a rather dissolute bohemian. In the following years he changed his appearance, habits, and even his handwriting. He became the "Sphinx" he still is to many people—unapproachable, secretive, an avid collector of medals and honors which he wore to protect himself from the real and imagined hostility of others. Long before he returned home in 1891, he had become the world's most famous dramatist.
For all its youthful excesses, Catiline (1850), his first play, is remarkably Ibsenian. The theme, as Ibsen wrote later, is the discrepancy between ability and aspiration, which he called "mankind's and the individual's tragedy and comedy at the same time." Like the characters in many of Ibsen's later plays, Catiline is torn between two women who represent conflicting forces in himself: one of them embodies domestic virtues, the other his calling and, significantly, his death. Also, the play begins with words which could be uttered by many later Ibsen heroes and heroines: "I must, I must, a voice deep in my soul urges me on—and I will heed its call."
The six following plays (The Warrior's Barrow, 1850; St. John's Eve, 1853; Lady Inger of Østraat, 1855; The Feast at Solhaug, 1856; Olaf Liljekrans, 1857; and The Vikings in Helgeland, 1858) are all in the spirit of romanticism and show Ibsen struggling to find a form and techniques which would embody his personal vision. The two plays he wrote during his second stay in Christiania deserve to be better known, both for their merits and for the light they shed on Ibsen's authorship: Love's Comedy (1862), a satire on bourgeois versus romantic love, and The Pretenders (1864), a magnificent historical and psychological tragedy.
In the first 10 years of his "exile" Ibsen wrote four plays. The immensely successful Brand (1866) is a towering drama of a man who strives to realize himself in terms of SØren Kierkegaard's "either/or" and of the consequences of such an effort. His next play, Peer Gynt (1867), made Ibsen Scandinavia's most discussed dramatist. Peer Gynt is Brand's opposite, a man who evades his problems until he loses everything, including himself. Peer is Ibsen's most universally human character.
The League of Youth (1869), a political satire, shows Ibsen moving toward the later "realistic" plays. Ibsen called Emperor and Galilean (1873), a 10-act play about Julian the Apostate, "a world-historical drama." In Julian's rejection of Christianity, his futile attempt to restore the pagan cult of man, and his doomed quest to found "the third kingdom," a Hegelian synthesis of the two ways of life, Ibsen dramatized what he saw as Western man's, and his own, dilemma. The play is a failure, but one can glimpse Julian's quest beneath the polished, modern surfaces of many of Ibsen's later plays.
Plays of Contemporary Life
Inspired by the demand of the critic Georg Brandes that literature begin to take up contemporary problems for discussion, and influenced by changing public taste, Ibsen now set out to develop a dramatic form in which serious matters could be dealt with in the "trivial" guise of everyday life. Since there were models for such a drama, Ibsen cannot be said to have invented the realistic, or social reform, play. However, he brought it to perfection and, in doing so, made himself the most famous, reviled and praised dramatist of the 19th century. It should be stressed, however, that Ibsen had no intention of becoming merely a dramatist whose plays reflected contemporary manners and attacked social evils. He remained what he had always been, essentially antisociety, concerned with the individual and his problems.
Ibsen solved the technical difficulties involved in translating his tragic vision from the romantic forms to a realistic form in two central ways. First, he developed a retrospective technique whereby, as the play progresses, the past events leading to the climax are gradually brought to light through the words and acts of the characters. In Ibsen's hands (but not always in those of his followers), the past is not just dead matter: it grips the present and changes its significance. Ibsen's characters live in a continual, exciting "now," moving toward the truth about themselves and their condition.
Second, and equally important, was Ibsen's exploitation of visual imagery, whereby he gave his plays, through set, costume, and stage direction, much of the poetry denied the dramatist who deals with modern people speaking in everyday prose.
The term "Ibsenite," as used by G. B. Shaw, Ibsen's disciple and champion in England, describes a play which exposes individual and social hypocrisy. It can be used, in the narrowest sense, only about Pillars of Society (1877) and A Doll's House (1879), which do seem to stress the aspects of society and personal dishonesty that hinder personal development. But even Nora, in the latter play, is a sufficiently complex character to suggest other interpretations. Already in Ghosts (1881), however, the heroine, Mrs. Alving, discovers that the forces working against human development are not just dead social conventions: there are forces in the individual that are more elusive and destructive than the "doll house" of marriage and society. The last of the "Ibsenite" plays, An Enemy of the People (1882), takes the consequences of Mrs. Alving's discovery and laughs at the social reformer. The laughter, however, is compassionate—the hero has a certain resemblance to Ibsen himself—and the play is one of Ibsen's finest comedies.
Plays after 1882
After 1882 Ibsen concentrated more and more on the individual and his dilemma, as he had done prior to 1877, and on those timeless forces, reflected in individual psychology and working through social institutions, that hinder individual growth. The Wild Duck (1884) might be said to introduce Ibsen's last period by showing how the average man needs illusions to survive and what happens to a family when something that may be truth is introduced into it. Here Ibsen also moved toward a new symbolism, rising from and intimately bound up with his realistic surfaces.
In Rosmersholm (1886), a man raised in a tradition of Christian duty and sacrifice tries, under the influence of a free, "pagan" woman, to break with his past. The Lady from the Sea (1888) is considered a remarkable anticipation of psychotherapy, but the heroine's "cure" makes unconvincing theater. Hedda Gabler (1890) is a savage portrait of a frustrated woman, spiritually, sexually, and socially. There is, however, much of Ibsen, as he saw himself at the time, in Hedda Gabler.
With the exception of Little Eyolf (1894), the weakest of the later plays, the last plays are, to a great extent, confessional. The Master Builder (1892) is one of Ibsen's most beautiful dramas, essentially a dialogue between a guilt-burdened artist and the youth he betrayed, played against the wife and children he has "murdered" for his ambition. John Gabriel Borkman (1896), Ibsen's bleakest play, is a study of a man (he could be today's industrialist) who has sacrificed everything to his vision, until he is killed by the forces in nature he has sought to control. Glimpsed in the background, in scenes alternately comic and pathetic, is the alternative to Borkman's way of life, the life of sensual pleasure. But no synthesis seems possible of the spirit and the flesh: the "third kingdom" of which Ibsen had dreamed so long is farther away than ever.
Ibsen's last play, When We Dead Awaken (1899), more symbolic than even those which immediately precede it, is an artist's confession of his failure as a man and of his doubts about his achievement. The play is not, however, just about the cost of great achievement: it is also about that achievement and about the man who, as Ibsen expressed it in his first words as a dramatist, hears a voice urging him on and heeds that voice. Soon after this play, Ibsen suffered a stroke that ended his career. He died on May 23, 1906.
Ibsen's collected works, together with all draft material, lists of English translations and criticism, and introductions by the editor, were translated in Ibsen, edited by James W. McFarlane (7 vols., 1960-70). The standard biography is by Halvdan Koht, The Life of Ibsen (2 vols., trans. 1931). Ibsen's daughter-in-law, Bergljot Ibsen, in The Three Ibsens (trans. 1951), gives valuable information on his life. More specialized is Brian W. Downs, The Intellectual Background (1946).
On Ibsen's plays generally, George Bernard Shaw's classic The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1913) stresses the social reform aspects, and Herman J. Weigand, The Modern Ibsen: A Reconsideration (1925), emphasizes Ibsen the psychologist. John Northam, Ibsen's Dramatic Method (1953), is invaluable for the light it sheds on Ibsen's visual imagery. See also Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama (1964), and Maurice Valency, The Flower and the Castle (1964), on Ibsen and August Strindberg and their contribution to modern drama. The prefaces to Rolf Fjelde's excellent translations of some of Ibsen's plays (Signet paperbacks) are well worth reading.
Bull, Francis, Ibsen, the man and the dramatist, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.
Duve, Arne, The real drama of Henrik Ibsen?, Oslo: Lanser forl., 1977.
Gosse, Edmund, Henrik Ibsen, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978 c1907.
Jorgenson, Theodore, Henrik Ibsen: a study in art and personality, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978, 1945.
Macfall, Haldane, Ibsen: the man, his art & his significance, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978; Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1976.
Shafer, Yvonne, Henrik Ibsen: life, work, and criticism, Fredericton, N.B., Canada: York Press, 1985. □
Born: March 20, 1828
Died: May 23, 1906
The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen made a tremendous impact on the course of Western drama. The best of his plays portray the real-life problems of individuals, with a skillful use of dialogue (conversation between individuals in a play) and symbols.
Henrik Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828, in Skien, Norway. His father was a successful merchant. When Ibsen was eight, his father's business failed, which was a shattering blow to the family. Ibsen left home at age fifteen and spent six years as a pharmacist's (one who prepares and sells drugs that are ordered by doctors) assistant in Grimstad, Norway, where he wrote his first play. In 1850 he moved to Christiania (Oslo), Norway, to study. In 1851 he became assistant stage manager of a new theater in Bergen, Norway, where part of his job was to write one new play a year. Although these plays were mostly unsuccessful, Ibsen gained valuable theater experience.
Ibsen returned to Christiania in 1857, where he spent the worst period of his life. His plays either failed or were rejected, and he went into debt. He left Norway in 1864, spending the next twenty-seven years in Italy and Germany. He changed his appearance, his habits, and even his handwriting. He became distant, secretive, and desperate to protect himself from the real and imagined hostility of others.
The main character in Catiline (1850), Ibsen's first play, is torn between two women who represent conflicting forces in himself. Ibsen's other early plays show him struggling to find his voice. The two plays he wrote during his second stay in Christiania were more successful: Love's Comedy (1862), which pokes fun at romantic love, and The Pretenders (1864), a historical and psychological (relating to the mind) tragedy (a serious drama that usually ends with the hero's death).
In the first ten years after leaving Norway Ibsen wrote four plays, including the immensely successful Brand (1866), about a man's attempt to understand himself. His next play, Peer Gynt (1867), made Ibsen Scandinavia's most discussed dramatist. Peer Gynt is Brand's opposite, a man who ignores his problems until he loses everything, including himself. Ibsen called Emperor and Galilean (1873), a ten-act play, "a world-historical drama."
Plays about current issues
Inspired by the demands of critics that literature should address current problems of the day, Ibsen set out to develop a dramatic form in which serious matters could be dealt with using stories about everyday life. Ibsen did not invent the realistic (based on real life) or social reform play, but he perfected the form. In doing so he became the most famous dramatist of the nineteenth century. Still, Ibsen remained what he had always been, a man who disliked society and concerned himself only with the individual and his problems.
As used by George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), a great supporter of Ibsen's work, the term "Ibsenite" describes a play that exposes individual and social hypocrisy (pretending to be what one is not). Examples are Pillars of Society (1877) and A Doll's House (1879), which point out how the conventions of society hinder personal development. In Ghosts (1881), however, the character of Mrs. Alving discovers that there are forces within the individual more destructive than the "dollhouse" of marriage and society. The last of the "Ibsenite" plays, An Enemy of the People (1882), is one of Ibsen's finest comedies.
After 1882 Ibsen concentrated more on the problems of the individual. The Wild Duck (1884) shows how the average man needs illusions (unreal and misleading thoughts or ideas) to survive and what happens to a family when it is forced to face the truth. In Rosmersholm (1886) a man raised in a tradition of Christian duty and sacrifice tries to break with his past. Hedda Gabler (1890) is the story of an unhappy woman who attempts to interfere with the lives of others. There is much of Ibsen, as he saw himself at the time, in Hedda Gabler.
Many of Ibsen's last plays represent confessions of his sins. The Master Builder (1892), one of Ibsen's most beautiful dramas, is the story of an artist consumed by guilt over the wife and children he has "murdered" to further his ambition. John Gabriel Borkman (1896) is a study of a man who sacrifices everything to his vision and is killed by the forces in nature he has sought to control. Ibsen's last play, When We Dead Awaken (1899), is an artist's confession of his failure as a man and of his doubts about his achievement. Soon after this play Ibsen suffered a stroke that ended his career. He died on May 23, 1906, in Christiania.
For More Information
Ferguson, Robert. Henrik Ibsen: A New Biography. London: R. Cohen, 1996.
Gosse, Edmund. Henrik Ibsen. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911. Reprint, Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions, 1978.
Ibsen, Henrik. The Correspondence of Henrik Ibsen. Edited by Mary Morrison. New York: Haskell House, 1970.
Jorgenson, Theodore. Henrik Ibsen: A Study in Art and Personality. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978.